Pentecost 19B (7 October 2012)



  • Job 1:1; 2:1-10 and Psalm 26 (or Genesis 2:18-24 & Psalm 8)
  • Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
  • Mark 10:2-16

First Reading: Job

This week the RCL begins a series of readings from the Book of Job as part of the extended exploration of ancient Israel’s wisdom tradition in these final months of Year B.

Job has had a profound impact on Western culture as a classic of the human quest for meaning in a world marked by suffering. It is rightly seen as an example of wisdom literature and yet it also offers a critique of traditional wisdom, as Jay Williams observes:

… though Job begins with the thought-forms and the questions of the wiseman, the book must be said to stand ‘at the edge of wisdom.’ It is, in fact, an impassioned assertion of the awareness that the simple moralism of most wise men is hardly enough. Proverbs is full of the kind of ‘practical’ advice which a father might offer to his son who is starting out to seek his fortune in the big wide world. Work hard, act and speak honestly, beware evil women and you will succeed. Job avoids all such cliches. In fact, the more one reads the book the more difficult it becomes to know just what answer is being given. Only the most superficial reader will put down the book fully convinced that he has understood it. Like Plato, who also wrote in dialogue form and who often ended his dialogues inconclusively, the authors of Job involve the reader in an intense debate which ends, not with a final Q.E.D., but with a new set of questions. If there is truth to be found in the book, therefore, it is born in the midst of struggle. Perhaps the truth is the struggle itself. [Jay G. Williams, Understanding the Old Testament, 267-268]

The ambiguity and ambivalence of Job is one of its most attractive features for many modern (and postmodern) readers. Here is a biblical text that celebrates the lack of a compelling answer, and instead calls us to faithfulness that sees beyond suffering to a meaning beyond human comprehension.

The literary origins of this text are unclear:

It is even more difficult to say when the book was written. Ezekiel referred to Job as an important person alongside Noah and Daniel (Ezek. 14:14-20). Moreover, tradition put him in the patriarchal period and made the book one of the oldest in the Bible. Modern scholars are skeptical of such claims to antiquity, but proposed dates range from the tenth to the third century B.C. The book itself is completely silent about its time, with no allusions to historical events or topical subjects … Job 3:4 is a parodistic allusion to Gen. 1:3, a creation account usually dated after the Exile in the sixth century B.C. Such evidence suggests but does not prove that Job was composed and completed after the Babylonian exile. [Edwin M. Good, Harper Bible Commentary, 370]

This week we begin with the classic opening scene in which God and Satan are engaged in a wager over the strength of Job’s love for God. For many people this will raise questions about the Satan figure as an embodiment of evil, but that is really an aside in the reading of Job. Here, Satan is effectively the Director of Public Prosecutions in the divine court; one of the “sons of God” with a specific portfolio, rather than a rival to the Almighty.

The following advice from Edwin Good’s introduction to Job in the Harper Bible Commentary appears under the heading, “On Reading Job”

It was suggested that Job be approached as fiction. That means to think of Job, the friends, and the deity as characters in the story. Like characters in any story, they may be presented with mixed motives and attitudes, with both knowledge and ignorance. Readers may find it hard to think of God as a character in a story, but the thought may allow perception of the unexpected in the divine speeches. Some interpreters have proposed that the deity comes across as a blustery windbag! That thought is worth considering as at least a possibility–it doesn’t have to be adopted if it doesn’t fit.
The Book is carried by the speeches, so attention must be paid to the words themselves. Reading aloud may help the hearing of tones of voice, inflections, anger, sarcasm, irony, humor, despair, or many other ways of talking. Job is complex. Consideration must be given to the ways people reply–or fail to reply–to what others have said, and how any speech carries on the debate or stalls it. Do Job and friends talk past each other, as some have proposed? Is it a mixture of conversation and scoring debating points? Perhaps the crucial part for reading is chaps. 38-42. What is Yahweh’s tone of voice? What is Job’s? Is Job responsive to Yahweh’s words? Does Yahweh respond to what went on in the rest of the book? Does he suggest a solution to the problem of Job’s suffering?
The fact that firm conclusions cannot be reached about many of these things is not a cause for concern. It only means the book needs to be read again and again, and minds challenged about it again and again. [Harper Bible Commentary, 371]

Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh …

The ancient creation story in Gen 2-3 tells the tale of paradise lost. From idyllic beginnings in the garden the “earth creature” (as Phyllis Tribble suggests we translate “adam” with its intentional echo of “earth, adamah“) becomes a being who lives in relationship with another and yet loses the original blessing of paradise.

In RC and ECUSA communities, the first reading this week takes up the creation of sexual difference within the human person, and the origins of marriage.

It is timely that the Guardian newspaper this week (30 September 2012) has a story about the end of the church’s wars over sexuality. That story notes the growing acceptance of gay and lesbian sexual orientation even among Evangelical leaders, and concludes that the “war” over sexuality is almost over; and that the liberals have won.

The ancient Jewish legend imagines the original human person as an asexual being, but the divine purposes only come to completeness with the appearance of two sexually differentiated individuals. The creation poem in Gen 1 speaks of a single humanity created in both male and female forms:

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (1:27)

The relational dimensions of authentic humanity are also expressed in this ancient story of the solitary earthling becoming two persons of the same substance.

Some biblical interpreters have chosen to stress the chronological priority of “the man” over “the woman.” However, this seems a culturally-determined (and, for males, a quite self-serving) interpretation. There may be a deeper truth in the story’s assertion that women and men are all constituted of exactly the same material. We share a common humanity and exist only in relationship to one another.

Second Reading: The Letter to the Hebrews

Through the remainder of the liturgical year, the three major lectionaries will all select the second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews.

The following comments are based on the commentary by Harold W. Attridge in the HarperCollins Bible Commentary (pp. 1149-61):

The work known as the Letter to the Hebrews was not originally a letter; nor were its addressees likely to have been “Hebrews.” Though often though to be Paul, the author is unknown. …

The general range within which Hebrews was written runs from ca. A.D. 60 to ca. 95. The earlier date is suggested by the author’s reference to himself and his community as second generation Christians (2:3-4). The advanced state of the traditions used in the text, especially its Christology (the way it identifies Jesus), also presupposes some time for development. …

Many critics argue that Hebrews was written prior to A.D. 70 because it refers to the Jewish Temple worship as a present reality and does not mention the destruction of the Temple, but neither argument is probative. Both Jewish and Christian authors writing after 70 refer to the Temple in present terms. More important, Hebrews is not interested in the actual cult of the Herodian Temple, but in the depiction of the cult of the desert tabernacle. …

The genre of the work is problematic because it ends with standard epistolary formulas, but lacks an initial address and greetings. … The document as a whole is as much a scripturally based homily as are its component parts, and its self-description as a “word of encouragement” (13:22) is apt. The conclusion suggests that the exhortation was sent to a congregation at some distance from its author. …

The designation of the addressees as “Hebrews” seems to be a later scribal inference based on the contents of the text …

Although the ethnic origin of the intended readers is unclear, Hebrews does give some data about them. They had been Christians for some time (5:12) and, because of that commitment, had experienced persecution (10:32-34), which is expected to continue (12:3-13; 13:3). Part of Hebrews’ function is to inspire the faithful endurance necessary to meet such threats. Of equal importance, the community seems to be undergoing a crisis of confidence. Some have been neglecting the community assembly (10:25). Such behavior may be a reaction to outside threats or even to the attractions of traditional Judaism, but it could equally well derive from a waning enthusiasm with complex causes. It is also not clear how well informed the author was about these causes. He senses, however, the possibility of apostasy and wants to prevent it by rekindling faith.

In this week’s passage we see the author drawing on OT texts to interpret Jesus as the divine Son through whom God has revealed himself “in these last days.” Various citations from the Psalms are understood as either descriptions of Jesus or as statements by Jesus.

At the same time, the author seems unaware that these are Bible citations. We do not find the familiar claim that Jesus “fulfilled the Scriptures” or that his life was lived “according to the Scriptures.” Rather, we have the vague, “someone has testified somewhere …” (Heb 2:6). The author seems to be working with a convenient collection of “testimonia” texts, rather than directly from the Bible.

Gospel: Jesus and divorce

The forms of the sayings that we have in the Synoptic tradition have clearly been worked over by Mark, Matthew and Luke. In the case of 1 Corinthians 7, it is not even clear that Paul is citing a historical tradition associated with Jesus rather than an equally authoritative tradition derived from the risen Lord speaking through a prophet in the early Christian communities. The Shepherd of Hermes provides an insight into the sexual politics of the Christian communities in late 1C period.

At the same time, I do think that there was most likely a saying from Jesus, probably couched in direct and uncompromising terms, that rejected the practice of a husband discarding his wide in order to marry someone else. My suggestion is that such a statement would fit well into the historical situation of Jesus around the time of Herod’s arrest/murder of John the Baptist. Just as JBap attacked Herod’s action in divorcing his Nabatean wife to marry Herodias, it seems highly likely that Jesus would have opposed such shabby treatment of Herod’s wife.

I suggest that Luke 16:18a may be very close to the original saying of Jesus:

Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.

For these reasons, had I been attending the Jesus Seminar session that voted on this cluster, I suspect that I would have voted as follows:

  • 1 Cor 7: Black (Paul is citing the risen Lord not the HJ)
  • Luke 16:18: Pink
  • Matt 5:31-32: Black (scribal interests dominating this version)
  • Mark 10:11: Pink
  • Mark 10:1-9,12 // Matt 19:3-12: Black (again, scribal interests)
  • HermMan: Black (reflects sexual ethic of later community)

Crossan [Historical Jesus, 301f] considers this complex as part of his discussion of Jesus against the patriarchal family. He notes the androcentric tradition of Jewish divorce laws at the time meant that the core issue was the defence of the man’s honor. Drawing on the work of John Kloppenborg (“Alms, Debt and Divorce: Jesus’ Ethics in Their Mediterranean Context” Toronto Journal of Theology 6: 1990, 182-200) Crossan highlights the significance of Jesus’ teaching against divorce. In Jesus’ novel ethic, the male who expels his wife and marries someone else has committed adultery against the rejected spouse; bringing shame on himself. Crossan concludes:

The opposition here is not just to divorce. To forbid divorce one has only to say that divorce is never legal. That is exactly what happens in the much less radical 252 Moses and Divorce [2/1]. The attack is actually against ‘androcentric honour whose debilitating effects went far beyond the situation of divorce. It was also the basis for the dehumanisation of women, children, and non-dominant males’ (Kloppenborg, 1990:196).

I find this interpretation of the ideological basis of Jesus’ condemnation of wife-dumping in 1C Palestine to be evocative.

Even if we think Jesus adopted a strong view against divorce, that does not translate into a simple view of how we handle the issue in our kind of society. For instance, should the principle of “the sabbath was made for Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve for the sabbath” also be applied to Jesus’ strictures on divorce? Can we affirm an underlying value while also acknowledging that the needs of people always come before the impartial imposition of an abstract rule?

As always in any discussion of this particular cluster, I declare my personal interest as a divorced and re-married white male.

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

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